In my sophomore college year, the classroom discussion one day was our individual priorities. The professor mentioned that if you want to know someone, just watch what they do with their time and money, and that will show you who they really are, what drives them and what their priorities are in life.
Why time and money? Because these two items are scarce commodities for everyone. That stuck in my head, and over all these years as I went through my professional work and personal life, I have come to appreciate that this observation is indeed very true.
This axiom holds true for corporate entities as well. No matter what the corporate policies dictate, what the website proclaims or what the corporate image pronunciations claim, looking and understanding how they spend their money and their efforts show much more clearly what are their true priorities.
Over the last couple of years, I started to think about this axiom as it relates to our country. Can we better understand our national priorities by looking at our national budget and where we spend our money?
The proposed $6.011 trillion national budget for 2022 has $4.018 trillion for mandatory spending (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and unemployment benefits), $1.688 trillion for discretionary spending (military, Health & Human Services, education, and Housing & Urban Development), and $305 billion for servicing the national debt interest.
About half of our discretionary budget goes to the military. That indicates that having a very robust military is a key priority for us. I was surprised that we have military presence in approximately 800 bases spread across 70 countries. In contrast, Russia has about 30 bases, while China has only one base outside China. Our military spending is also higher than that of the following nine countries combined. Just looking at the numbers, my corporate hat suggests that there is much room for belt-trimming and efficiency improvements in this budget category.
Of the $6.011 trillion national budget, revenue is expected at $4.174 trillion. The remainder $1.837 trillion is deficit spending which we will borrow from our future generations. As an individual, I know that I couldn’t spend more than I earned for too long, and doing so would lead to bankruptcy. But as a nation we continue to spend more than we earn over many presidencies, both Republican and Democrat.
This responsibility doesn’t just lie with the president. Legislatures craft and approve the budget and are equally responsible for the outcome of the process. Deficits get airtime during election cycles and then wane from public consciousness until the next election.
In the meantime, our current deficit totals $28 trillion, and now debt service costs 5% of our national budget. That debt payment is the fastest growing part of our federal expenditure, and is projected to double by 2028.
Compensation at universities vary by talent. At University of Minnesota, annual compensations average $131,000 for a professor, $800,000 for the university president, and $4.74 million for the football coach. So it seems that we value the services of a football coach much more than the university president or a PhD professor. As a society, is it more important to us to have a winning football program than a solid education for the students through cutting edge research and top-notch faculty?
Elementary school teachers earn about $35,000-45,000 annually, and, due to lack of funds, routinely have to spend their own money to buy school supplies. We entrust our most precious family members into the hands of these teachers to shape our children’s future, but our system continues to constrain the funding for the opportunities, especially for small town and inner-city schools.
When we were all locked down during the height of the pandemic, I observed how a majority of the people who were designated as “essential” were also the ones on the lower rungs of the salary ladder. They all risked their well-being and safety which enabled the rest of us to be safe at home. And again, how society compensated them did not match either the risk they took, nor the priority we assigned to their services through the “essential” categorization.
Money exposes the disparities among all of us, but we all get the same 24 hours every day we live. I have found it useful to track how I spend my time. I have been wanting for a while to learn Spanish, but somehow have not been able to find the time. Then earlier this year I found out that my iPhone can track my screen time. When I added up the time I spent on my phone screen, my laptop and some TV, I found out that I could easily shave off time towards learning Spanish. So yes, if learning Spanish is really a priority for me, I can find the time.
People tell me all the things that they want to do, but cannot afford it or find the time. Perhaps they have other priorities which take up their time and money. Similarly, there are many topics which need our attention, but in a headline-dominated news cycle these get airtime for a few days, only to be replaced by the next headline. I have come to realize that society is indeed expressing our priorities through how we are choosing to spend our budget and time. It is not clear whether that is a conscious or sub-conscious outcome.